News Analysis: Hezbollah Attacks Could Sway Israeli Voters in May Elections

The threat of Arab terrorism hangs over Israel’s current election campaign more than ever in the past — and it may, indeed, determine its results.

Terrorists have already shown their ability to influence the outcome of an Israeli election.

An attack on an Egged bus in the West Bank town of Jericho on the eve of the 1988 elections cost the lives of a mother and a child, and gave Likud the edge in a close electoral race.

Most eyes are now focused on Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad as having the power to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections on May 29.

Indeed, after the suicide bombings in February and March, public opinion surveys showed the gap between Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu narrowing.

But the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement operating in southern Lebanon also has the power to alter Israeli voting patterns.

Toward that end, Hezbollah has launched repeated Katyusha rocket assaults on Israel — most recently on March 30 — sending residents of Israel’s northern communities scurrying for shelter.

Last month’s attacks, along with the provocative threats at the time by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah for residents in northern Israel to “stay in their shelters,” reflected the group’s bravado.

They also indicated that the militant fundamentalist group decided no longer to honor the 1993 U.S. brokered understanding with Israel, under which Hezbollah committed not to launch Katyushas at the Galilee.

Meanwhile, in Israel’s nine mile-wide “security zone” in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s almost daily assaults against the Israel Defense Force and Israeli- backed South Lebanese Army have become more daring and deadly.

A Hezbollah suicide bomber on March 20 rushed the leading car of an Israeli army convoy, killing an Israeli officer — the sixth Israeli soldier to be killed in southern Lebanon in three weeks.

True, Hezbollah’s main goal is to get Israeli forces out of Lebanon.

But it also seeks to turn Israel’s electoral tide in favor of the right-wing Likud Party — a development, Hezbollah officials believe, that will hasten the collapse of the peace process.

And it does so with the full blessing of its mentors in Tehran.

Israeli security experts believe that Ali Falahian, the head of the Iranian intelligence service, is behind the recent Hezbollah offensive.

Falahian, who also views a Likud victory as leading to the collapse of the peace process, is the strongest supporter of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Islamic world.

Syria also has given its blessings to Hezbollah’s operations.

Syria may not give the signal for each Katyusha attack, but few in Israel doubt that Damascus has the power to stop Hezbollah.

The supply lines to Hezbollah run from Iran — via Damascus — to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, a territory under strict Syrian control.

Syrian President Hafez Assad has his own reasons for backing Hezbollah at the present time.

When the peace talks with Israel were going well, the Syrian media mentioned Israel by name and Assad reined in Hezbollah.

But now that the peace talks are stalled, Israel once again has become the “Zionist entity” in the Syrian media, and Damascus has given the fundamentalist group the go-ahead to continue its operations.

As long as Hezbollah has the backing of Damascus and Tehran, it will continue to press Israel in southern Lebanon and, possibly, within the Galilee.

Nasrallah vowed last month that this is exactly what Hezbollah would do.

Israeli forces went into Lebanon in 1982 to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization. Segments of the Lebanese population regarded Israel at the time as a potential ally, and this view was shared by many Shi’ites, who disliked the Palestinians no less than the Israelis did.

When Israeli forces remained in Lebanon longer than expected, they were regarded by the local population as occupiers — and it became Hezbollah’s political and religious mission to throw them out.

Hezbollah emerged in 1982 as a local product of Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah is not only a militant group, but also a legitimate political actor, enjoying representation in Lebanon’s parliament.

With Katyushas in hand, Hezbollah can hold northern Israel hostage until its main goal of an Israeli withdrawal is achieved.

The Katyushas can be launched from any truck, which can easily be moved from one hiding place to another. They have a range of about 13 miles, which covers most of the northern Galilee.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in turn, faces a lose-lose situation in dealing with Hezbollah.

No Israeli adventure in Lebanon has ever ended as a clear-cut gain. A military strike in Lebanon could end up as a fiasco, costing Peres at the voting booth.

In addition, if Peres orders a wide-ranging strike, tens of thousands of civilians in southern Lebanon would flee to the north as they did in July 1993, and their plight would once again turn world public opinion against Israel.

But if Peres sits back and lets the United States exert its influence to win a measure of peace — as happened after the March 30 Katyusha assault — Peres could also lose points with Israel’s voters.

Some Israeli officials have urged Peres to pursue a third option: to admit once and for all that there is no point in remaining in Lebanon any longer.

Columnist Ofer Shelah wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv last weekend that Israel should learn a lesson from the American experience in Vietnam and realize that there is no point fighting a war without a definite objective.

“We have good soldiers and sophisticated technical means, but we have no clear- cut goal, courage and endurance,” Shelah wrote.

But just the same, no Israeli government will order a unilateral pullout of Lebanon.

Certainly not at election time.

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